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But before you retire those gloves and tools for the season, I’d like to ask that you reconsider for just another month or two. The next few months are what I consider to be the best and most important time spent in the garden. In fact, I think of fall to be the start of next year’s garden. Along with the pleasure of spending time outdoors in these cooler temperatures, certain tasks for the yard and garden are more important now than ever, for a number of reasons.
Here are some of the tasks that keep me busy and happy, this time–every year:
Cutting back and cleaning up: Many pests and diseases over-winter in plant debris. Removing it from the landscape now improves your chances of eliminating numerous future problems that would otherwise survive to reemerge next spring. Include the following in your to-do list:
Cut back perennials: These plants will come back next year because the roots survive, even though the growth above ground may not. Cutting off the dead and spent foliage a few inches above the ground in the fall will not harm the plant.
Remove spent annuals and seasonal vegetables: Unlike perennials, annuals do not come back from season to season so there is no reason to leave these in the ground. Pull them up, roots and all, and add them to your compost pile.
Remove weeds and leaf debris: These are common places for diseases and pests to over-winter. The less hospitable you can make the garden for winter-hardy pests, the fewer problems come spring.
Compost only the healthy material: As you remove debris from your fall cleanup projects, be sure to add only the pest-free and non-diseased plants to the compost pile. Destroy any diseased plant material or remove it from you garden. Pathogens and insect pests can winter-over and return next year in compost that doesn’t get hot enough.
Get a soil test. Fall is a great time to amend your soil. Information provided by a soil test report can tell you what’s needed. Most reports include details such as pH and a nutrient analysis of the basic elements. Look for private labs that provide information on how to supplement amendments using organic and natural options. Most university labs that provide the testing for county extension services still only provide synthetic chemical recommendations. A web search of “organic soil test” will turn up a few good results.
Amend the soil with natural organic materials: Even without the help of a soil test, organic amendments such as homemade compost, manure, blood meal, bone meal, cottonseed meal, etc. are a great way to improve the long-term health and structure of soil, naturally. By adding them in fall, amendments have time to break down into a form that plants can use by spring.
Add mulch: A fresh layer of mulch provides a protective barrier over plant roots and protects evergreen foliage from soil borne diseases that can splash back onto them. In colder climates, add mulch after the ground freezes. This will help prevent frost heave and keep soil temperatures more even through winter, while protecting roots. As the mulch decomposes, that all-important, soil-improving organic matter is enriching your garden beds as well. And to be safe with the mulch you add, make sure it’s “Certified Mulch and Soil” from the Mulch and Soil Council*. It’s the only way to know that what you’re adding is free of unacceptable chemicals, like arsenic from pressure treated wood. (*Full disclosure: I’m their spokesperson but I wouldn’t buy it any other way—seriously!)
Winterize containers. Containers can freeze and crack and non-hardy plants quickly die when roots are exposed to the elements. To protect plants and containers, bring them inside or at least to an area protected from winds and extreme temperatures. You don’t want to encourage new growth during this time, so don’t add fertilizer and keep water to a minimum.
The bottom line to the extra effort we put into our outdoor spaces this fall will pay big dividends next year as we enjoy a healthier garden and landscape. Not only will our landscapes look greener, they’ll be greener--naturally. And that means less work next spring and beyond. I’d say that’s not a bad tradeoff.